Revised as of November 16, 2009
Recognizing Online Volunteers
Using the Internet to Honor ALL Volunteers
Recognition of a volunteer, no matter where he or she performs service, is the act of acknowledging a person's contribution to a nonprofit/civil society organization and those it serves. Recognition contributes to volunteers staying committed to an organization, and gets the attention of potential volunteers -- and donors -- as well.
In traditional, offline settings, much of the inspiration and recognition for volunteers occurs informally rather than formally: volunteers coming in contact with staff members over coffee, talking with board members and other volunteers at special events, seeing first hand how their contributions are used onsite at the organization, etc. Formal, traditional recognition of volunteers has included special gatherings, small gifts or discounts at local businesses, but it's the informal recognition that keeps volunteers coming back.
In addition, organizations should also incorporate use of the Internet to recognize the efforts of ALL volunteers, both those who perform most of their service from home, work, school or other remote computers, and those who perform their service onsite, face-to-face. With cyberspace, it's never been easier to show volunteers -- and the world -- that volunteer contributions play a key part in an organization's successes.
- Be Timely
The most effective form of thanks follows the completion of a significant task or an entire assignment. Do NOT wait to say thanks during National Volunteer Week in April, or at the advent of a new project ("Thanks so much for helping last year -- can you again this year?"). Immediately acknowledge a job well done and a service successfully provided. This can be as simple as an email that says "thanks" and outlines how the volunteer's contributions are going to be used by the agency, the impact this work may have on clients, etc. Specific suggestions are noted further down on this page.
- Be Consistent
Whatever you do for your onsite volunteers as a form of recognition, you should do for your online volunteers; if something can't be "translated" online (such as free parking or a mass transit voucher), then find a way to give online volunteers something similar (see the list below for ideas). Don't get caught "favoring" one group over the other -- many people will be both online volunteers and onsite volunteers, and they will notice the difference in particular. Plus, you want all volunteers and staff at your organization to think of all volunteers as valuable, not just those who are able to come onsite. There are no "virtual" volunteers -- only real ones.
- Recognize Contributions Big & Small
It takes small contributions of service - not just the big ones - to keep a program moving forward and meeting its objectives. Be grateful for the work of everyone involved, not just the contributions of the superstars who contribute huge amounts of time.
- Recognition Is Everyone's Job
The volunteer manager is often not the person working with volunteers once they take on assignment, even virtual assignments -- other staff often supervise and interact with volunteers after assignments are made. Educate staff, in ongoing ways, regarding the importance of volunteer recognition and how to provide it continually, and survey your volunteers to make sure they are feeling involved and appreciated by those with whom they are working.
- Inclusion Is Key
Most online volunteers with whom the author has communicated cite inclusion as the way they most appreciate being recognized. They have said the best form of thanks is seeing and hearing what difference their work really makes, being invited to participate in decision-making, and feeling truly a part of an organization's team. Most of the suggestions further down on the page are made with this in mind.
Specific Ideas for Recognizing Online Volunteers
- Honor your online volunteers the same way you honor your onsite volunteers in newsletters, program updates, press releases and annual report. Also, emphasize the impact particular volunteer services have and the difference they make, not just numbers of volunteers and hours they have provided.
- If you have a newsletter or program updates that are sent out to donors, clients, onsite volunteers and others interested or involved with your agency, give online volunteers the opportunity to sign up to receive these as well.
- If your onsite volunteers receive a lapel pin to honor them for the hours they donate to your organization, why not your online volunteers?
- If you have a bulletin board at an annual meeting with pictures of your onsite volunteers in action, be sure you invite online volunteers to submit photos as well.
- Copy ALL volunteers with email addresses on internal staff memos (as appropriate) relating to programs and services.
- Invite the comments of online volunteers about programs and services, ask them how they feel regarding support and feedback from staff, etc. Be sure to show how you are incorporating their feedback in some way. This demonstrates that you value online volunteers as part of your team.
- Invite online volunteers to special events, staff trainings and celebrations, if it's geographically possible for them to attend.
- If you are hosting an onsite event which will exclude some or all online volunteers because of their remote locations, consider setting up a computer terminal with Internet access at the event and having a live chat, so that onsite attendees can communicate with online volunteers. Set up a digital camera so that volunteers who can't attend in-person can do so via cyberspace. Finding a corporation or university to donate its resources and volunteers to make such novel ideas happen isn't as difficult as you might think -- many are excited at the idea of showing off their tech tools and expertise, and being able to "give back" at a one-time event (rather than making a long-term commitment).
- Some remote online volunteers may be in your area while they are on a business trip, visiting family or friends, on their way to another destination, etc. Give online volunteers an open invitation to visit your agency if they visit your city (but to call or email first, ofcourse).
- Send your online volunteers "swag" -- promotional items with your organization's logo, such as coffee cups, bumper stickers, t-shirts, etc. You can make this a special gift for those online volunteers who have contributed a certain amount of time to your organization, or who have made a particularly outstanding contribution to your organization in terms of service.
- Allow volunteers to submit photos of themselves to include in
online recognition (however, note that some volunteers do not want
to be identified with their full name or location alongside their
- Send a postcard, particularly if online volunteers are outside of the city where your organization is located. A postcard of a landmark in your city, with a personal note from you, will be more treasured than you might realize (personally, it's my favorite "thank you" from organizations I volunteer for online outside the USA).
- For volunteers within North America, consider contacting a national or international chain store that is very well represented everywhere, to see if they would be willing to donate coupons for a small amount off of a purchase at one of their stores for your volunteers. This would mean your distributing such coupons to your online volunteers via postal mail.
Suggestions to Use the Internet to Honor ALL Volunteers
- Profile a volunteer of the week or month on your web site, and make sure you don't favor onsite volunteers over online volunteers for this "prize." Do NOT make one for online and one for onsite -- this creates a "two-tiered" system, and reinforces the differences in these groups (instead of reinforcing the idea that they are ALL volunteers).
- In keeping with your organization's confidentiality, have those your organization serves to write messages to be distributed to volunteers about the importance of their service, or just a simple "Thank you." These can be signed with first names only, to protect privacy.
- Prepare customized, downloadable, signed certificates of
appreciation for each online volunteer, that each can print out and
display as they like (these can be handed out to onsite volunteers at onsite events). It is very important that these be CUSTOMIZED, with the volunteer's name (be sure everything is spelled correctly) and a line about the specific service they provided.
- Provide an online forum for all volunteers, both those that provide service onsite and those that provide such online, where they can all talk about their experiences and questions relating to their volunteering service with your organization. This creates a sense of community among all of your volunteers, and may even provide a forum for those onsite volunteers who are too shy to speak up face-to-face.
- Invite volunteers to participate in online advisory groups regarding your programs, an upcoming event, the design of a new web site, etc.; many volunteers see additional responsibilities as a form of recognition.
- Prepare a short video, as a .mov or .wmv file, thanking volunteers for their service. Just 30 or 60 seconds would be enough. It could come from your volunteer coordinator, your executive director, your board president, or even from several clients. You can put this video on YouTube, your web site, or a space that only volunteers can access.
- List all volunteers and their contributions on your web site. Include pictures of the volunteers in action -- and in the case of online volunteers, encourage them to send in photos of themselves. Always have volunteers sign legal releases if you intend to publish their images online or in print (no release, no photo), and if confidentiality and privacy are particular concerns, then identify volunteers by first name and city/country of residence only. Children should NEVER be identified by more than their first names, and you should get a legal release signed from their parents before even taking photos.
- Develop an online badge or logo that volunteers can place on their individual Web sites or online profiles, which notes that they support your organization and which links back to your organization's web site.
- Develop a profile on MySpace only for your volunteering program, or a group on FaceBook only for your volunteering program, and allow only those who are volunteers, or have volunteered, with your organization to link to this profile as a "friend" or a member.
Return to my volunteer-related resources index
In November 2010, I received a VERA (Volunteer Excellence Recognition Award) from Business Council for Peace (BPEACE), a USA-based nonprofit that recruits business professionals to help entrepreneurs in countries emerging from war, like Rwanda and Afghanistan, to create and expand businesses and employment (particularly for women). I received the award as recognition for my online volunteering work with BPEACE. I then posted a photo of myself holding the award online, posted it to my Facebook page, to my blog, etc. So in addition to making me feel a part of BPEACE and feeling appreciated for my contributions, I got to help further build excitement for an organization I care about.
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